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New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Pink House," by Rebecca Curtis

Rebecca Curtis: Good writer
Issue: June 30, 2014

Story: "The Pink House"

Author: Rebecca Curtis

Review: As part of my self-appointed quest to monitor and write about the short fiction in The New Yorker (and now Playboy; maybe The Atlantic soon, too) I find myself subjected to all sorts of stories of various forms, subject matters, and degrees of quality...which is precisely the point: to read and truly acquaint myself with a wide swath (or at least a wider swath) of the best contemporary fiction being produced. Occasionally I find myself totally un-impressed and even insulted by the poor quality of a particular story; most of the time (too much of the time) I find the story well-written but un-inspiring. Once in a while, however, I am knocked upside the head by a story (and an author) that draws me back into the short fiction reviewing game and reminds me why I do this. "The Pink House," by Rebecca Curtis, was just such a story.

First awesome thing about this story: the "meta" element. It begins at a writer's retreat on a rainy night in which the retreat's guests have been thrust together by a freak storm and are having a long, boozy dinner. If the idea of a bunch of writers eating and drinking together on a rainy night at a remote mountain writer's retreat sets your heart aflutter then you, my friend, are indeed a Writer. Not that if you DON'T find that situation mysterious and enthralling you are NOT a writer, but it just seems like the kind of thing a certain kind of person would find enjoyable. The "meta" part comes in when the main character, a young, pretty writer is egged-on to tell her story about how she lived with a man she didn't love for six years and possibly ruined his life.

I'm still at a loss to really understand why this story was so entertaining or why I couldn't stop reading it once I started, but the "meta" aspect absolutely had something to do with it. The whole story-within-a-story technique is great because you get two different effects, a.) the effect of the story the character is telling, and b.) a whole array of sub-textual elements like, why the character is telling that particular story, why the character uses certain narrative techniques or takes various asides.

Interestingly, the main character adds a lot of sexual detail into her story early on; sexual detail involving her own sex life. This could be done to entice male members of her listening, dinner party audience, or could be done to make the story itself more salacious and therefore more entertaining. Either way, it works on the page because of the double effect I mentioned above. After all, who doesn't like a like a little sex in a story?

Also one thing that, quite perversely, works in the opposite way that it usually does: the main character isn't very likable. This is usually one of my first requirements of a story; I've got to like at least something about the narrator or I get turned off and find it difficult to care about the story. This story worked, however, in spite of having a narrator that was difficult to identify with. Why? Again, I've got to plead the "meta" defense. The story-within-a-story aspect means the story isn't really "about" the narrator so much as something else...what is that something else, I don't know...but in this case the story (a ghost story, sort of) seemed more like a vehicle for conveying a certain disgust with the modern world and dissatisfaction with relationships.

There was something unsettling beneath this story, as there should be underneath all ghost stories, I suppose. Done properly, a ghost story should describe a genuine brush with the mystic, the spirit world, or at least with something beyond the human capacity to understand. This story does that, but even without the "ghost" element there's still something in Curtis' narration that made me squirm in my seat, some overriding air of doom and disgust.

Whatever it was, I hung on every word of this story like I rarely do with other fiction I read these days, in the NYer or wherever. This is a story well-worth your 30 minutes, especially for a fiction writer studying the craft. I don't care what the subject matter, form, or "point," if a story can hold my attention like this, then it's Good. Here endeth the rant.

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